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Here’s my Lenten sermon on John 4.

After nearly 15 years of ministry, God finally saw fit to give me a snow day last week. I was as stoked as my fifth grader this week that the Almighty looked down upon my sweatshop-labor-lot and threw me a bone.

And gave me a snow day.

Like many of you, I’m certain, I spent the snow day in my boxers binge-watching Netflix, working my through my Netflix queue. In case you don’t know, queue is the word you use for line if you spend most of your time in drawstring pants eating ice cream and hot pockets.

I spent the day working my way through my Netflix queue until I got to a show I’d saved a month ago but then had forgotten was in my line up. I mean, my queue.

You all probably watched the show weeks ago when it premiered on Netflix, Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.

I know our organist, Liz Miller, watched it 3 times in 1 night, and Dennis who just started another of his sabbaticals is probably watching it right now.

I’m probably the last person to have watched Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. But just in case Karli hasn’t seen it… here’s the premise. Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special begins with Christmas.

It turns out- St. Nick’s little indentured servants made too many toys this year. Supply outpaced demand. Santa’s stuck with more inventory than nice or naughty kids.

So, to get rid of this overage emergency, like Leia to Obi Wan, Santa turns to his only hope.

That’s right, Michael Bolton.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve already guessed what comes next in the story. You can anticipate what comes next. Because this is Michael Bolton we’re talking about! The man who combines the skullet hairstyle of Kenny G with a voice that’s practically an audible erogenous zone.

In the story, as soon as Santa calls upon the Soul Provider to provide the North Pole with emergency help, you know how the story will unfold.

Sure, the character Mike Bolton in Office Space calls Michael Bolton a “no talent ass clown” but we know that’s not true.

Michael Bolton’s 1,000 thread-count bedroom voice has scored 9 #1 Billboard hits. His 1991 album Time, Love, and Tenderness won a Grammy as did his cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

I know firsthand from my experience as a teenage lifeguard in the 1990’s- nothing got my friend’s moms to flirt with shirtless me faster than Michael Bolton’s single “Love is a Wonderful Thing” in rotation over the PA system.

Michael Bolton is like strawberries and champagne, raw oysters and bitter chocolate. He’s like lace and rose petals on silk sheets. He’s an aphrodisiac.

Michael Bolton can arouse the female species the way block grants and entitlement cuts get Paul Ryan horny.

But I digress.

My point is-

In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, as soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know what to expect.

You know Santa is going to call upon Michael Bolton to host a Valentine’s Day Special on TV that will inspire couples all over the world to make sweet love and conceive 100,000 new babies; thereby, solving Santa’s elf- induced extra inventory problem.

I mean, how cliched is that? You’ve seen that story arc a million times before, right?!

As soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know how the story will unfold because Michael Bolton’s bedroom baritone is so cliched it’s a storytelling convention.

It’s a trope.

A type. An archetype.

Admit it. We see story types like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special all the time.

So we know what comes next.

It’s like how in every romantic comedy, unless he’s in a coma, Bill Pullman will get dumped by his fiance for a stranger she meets on the Empire State Building. And maybe, that’s only in Sleepless in Seattle but you know it feels like every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.

Just like you know in every romantic comedy, at some point, a heartbroken girl will be comforted by her emotionally intelligent gay friend. It’s a storytelling convention. It’s never a dumb gay friend.

It’s never a gay friend who always says the absolute wrong thing. It’s always a sensitive, empathetic gay friend. Every time.

It’s like how in every disaster movie there are politicians who ignore and even deny the dire warnings coming from the consensus of the scientific community- not that that would ever happen in real life, it’s a type, a cliche.

A storytelling convention.

Like, how in every outdoorsy adventure movie you know it’s going to be the sidekick of color who gets eaten by the bear first.

It’s a storytelling convention.

Like opposites attract, like beauty on the inside.

Like, obviously, the gawky middle school friend you didn’t appreciate will grow up to be smoking hot (see: 13 Going on 30).

Like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.

They’re all rely upon cliches. Tropes. Archetypes.

Without scenery or spoken word these storytelling conventions advance the plot. They hint and foreshadow what’s to come.

Next.

The first time farm-boy Wesley says to Buttercup “As you wish” you know how it’s going to end. And because you know how it will end, you know Wesley the farm boy is not dead. You know he’s really the Dread Pirate Roberts.

And even when he’s mostly dead you know he’s not gonna die because you know that’s not how true love

stories

go.

And when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well, all the stories of scripture, all the Old Testament reruns, they all lead you to expect…a wedding.

—————————

Just as surely as you know how its going to go as soon as Billy Crystal ride shares his way back to NY with Meg Ryan, all the storytelling conventions of scripture tell you what to expect when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well.

Abraham’s son, Isaac, he went to a foreign land and there at a well he met a woman who was filling her jar.

And guess what Isaac said to her? “May I have some water from your jar?” And Rebekah said to him, “Yes, and I’ll draw water for you camels too.”

And just like that, before you know it, they’re getting married.

Their son, Jacob, he went east to a foreign land, and in the middle of a field surrounded by sheep he comes to a large, stone well. And there approaching the well, Jacob sees a shepherdess, coming to water her sheep, Rachel.

And this time Jacob doesn’t ask the woman for water, he goes directly to her father and asks to marry her. And before you know, well after laboring for her father for 7 years, they’re getting married.

When Moses fled Pharaoh of Egypt, he goes to a foreign land and sits down by a well. And there, says the Book of Exodus, a priest of Midian comes to the well with his 7 daughters and their flock of sheep.

A group of shepherds gather at the well too and they start to harass the priest’s daughters. Moses steps in to defend them and quicker than ‘You had me at hello” Moses is getting married to one of the priest’s daughters, Zipporah.

Ditto King Saul. Ditto the lovers in the Song of Songs. And on and on.

It’s a type scene, a cliche, a contrivance, a storytelling convention.

Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the rest- they all meet their prospective wives at wells in a foreign land.

Meeting at a well in a foreign land- in scripture it’s like match.com or the Central Perk. You’ve seen this story before.

A man comes to a foreign land and there he finds a maiden at a well. He asks her for a drink. She obliges and more so, and then, faster than Faye Dunaway falls for Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, the maiden runs back to get her people to witness and bless their union.

That’s how the story always goes.

———————-

So when John tells you that Jesus goes to a foreign country, Samaria, and meets a woman at a well and asks her for a drink-

You might as well cue up the jazz flute baby-making music because all the scenes of scripture have prepared you for what to expect.

Meeting a woman at a well- it’s as reliable a clue as when Jim first talks to Pam at the front desk of Dunder Mifflin. You know they’re going to get married!

And, by the way, don’t forget the first miracle, sign, Jesus performs in John’s Gospel in chapter 2 is in Cana where Jesus is a wedding guest. And how, right before this passage, in John 3, Jesus refers to himself, cryptically so, as the bridegroom. And now here in chapter 4 he’s in a foreign land, at a well, asking a woman for a drink of water.

So, if this scene is as cliched as Michael Bolton’s sex appeal, if a man meeting a maiden at a well is as contrived a storytelling convention as the sensitive gay friend, if what John wants to cue up is a wedding, then why doesn’t Jesus follow the script?

I mean, it’s not hard. It’s like swiping right on Tinder.

In scripture all you have to do is ask a girl at a well for a drink of water and someone’s practically already shouting mazel tov.

If that’s what John has cued up for us, then why does Jesus go from asking for a drink of water to talking about Living Water?

And why does this woman, who according to the convention is supposed to be a maiden, instead seem to have more baggage than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman?

The answer? Is in the numbers.

———————-

The thing about storytelling conventions- every song uses more than one.

In every comic book movie, it’s not just that the superhero gets orphaned in front of his eyes as a kid, it’s that you know you’re going to find out later the bad guy had something to do with his parents’ murder.

The thing about storytelling conventions- every story uses more than one. In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, the story doesn’t just turn on Michael Bolton’s siren call sex appeal. That would be too simple of a story. The story would just be Michael Bolton helping Santa fill the world with more babies with his bedroom voice. That would be ridiculous.

No, even Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special requires another storytelling convention to advance the story; in this case, a villain, the owner of a no questions asked money back guarantee mattress company, who vows to kill Michael Bolton after he’s deluged with calls from customers wanting their money back because Michael Bolton has inspired them to reach such bed-destroying heights of ecstasy they want their money back.

The thing about storytelling conventions every story uses more than one. Even the Gospel of John.

Here in John 4, it’s not just the well scene and it’s the numbers.

You need both conventions, the well and the numbers, to mine the meaning of this story.

———————-

Numbers in scripture always convey meaning.

Jesus dies at the 6th hour.

12 disciples. 12 tribes of Israel.

Joshua marched around Jericho 7 times on the 7th day.

The menorah has 7 candlesticks.

And God completed creation and rested on the 7th day.

In scripture, numbers always convey meaning. It’s a storytelling convention. And in scripture, the number 7 always connotes completeness. Perfection. Fulfillment.

And if the number 7 conveys completeness, the number 6 is 7’s ugly opposite, a blemish. The number 6 is painful reminder of coming up short, of imperfection, of incompleteness.

So when John tells you this woman has had 5 husbands and she’s shacked up with 1 more (6) and now she’s meeting a 7th suitor at a well, he’s not simply telling you she has baggage. He’s giving you a clue that the tension in this story is between incompleteness and completeness.

The numbers are the other storytelling convention and the most important number to know in this story isn’t even explicit in the story.

John just expects you, the audience, to know it.

The number 3.

3- that’s the number of husbands a woman was allowed under the Jewish Law.

3- that’s it. Not 5. Not 6-ish.

3.

And it’s true Samaritans weren’t Jews, but- you can tell just from her conversation with Jesus- the Pentateuch was their scripture. The shared the same bible. They followed the Torah too.

She’s only allowed under the Law 3 husbands.

So what’s up with John telling us that she’s had 5, 6-ish, husbands?

——————————

This is where this hackneyed courtship scene from scripture becomes like a Jane Austen movie where everything turns on language and word play and misunderstanding.

The word husband in Hebrew, ba’al, means literally lord. It’s the same word Hebrew uses for a pagan deity. She’s had 5 ba’lim and now a sort of 6th.

 

She’s had 5 gods, 5 idols, and now a sort of 6th.

So often preachers want to make this story about Jesus crossing boundaries, gender and ethnic, to show hospitality to this unclean outsider, or they want to make it about Jesus showing grace to this woman with a profligate past.

The problems with preaching this passage that way-

On the one hand, Jesus is in Samaria not the other way around. If anyone here is crossing ethnic and gender boundaries to show hospitality to an outsider, it’s her.

On the other hand, this passage might be about grace and no doubt she’s a sinner but the ba’lim they’re talking about aren’t husbands. They’re idols.

It’s right there in scripture, in 2 Kings 17, where it describes the Assyrian invasion of Israel and how the Assyrians brought with them to Samaria from 5 different Assyrian cities their 5 different gods, 5 different idols, 5 ba’lim, husbands.

Her baggage is different than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman. She hasn’t broken the 6th commandment. She’s broken the first.

She’s not an adulteress. She’s an idolatress.

So who’s this 6-ish husband?

This is where John 4 is like a western or a war movie. You have to know the geography to follow the story.

John expects you to know that near Sychar Herod the Great had turned the capital city of Samaria into a Roman city and named it after Caesar and filled the city with thousands of Roman colonists, settlers with whom the Samaritans did not intermarry as they had with the Assyrians.

Hence Jesus’ line “…and the one you have now is not your husband.” He’s not looking into her heart. What Jesus knows about her is what every Jew knew about her. People.

You see, it’s another storytelling convention.

This woman- she’s a stand in. A symbol.

She represents all of her people.

It’s a different kind of wedding scene because they’re not talking about her checkered past. They’re talking about her people’s worshiping 5 false gods and now they’re under the thumb of Caesar who required his subjects to worship him as a god, as a ba’al.

That’s why she calls him a prophet.

Prophets don’t look into sinners’ hearts for their secrets.

Prophets call out people’s idolatry.

That’s why their conversation so quickly turns to worship. If they’re talking about husbands husbands then it sounds like she’s changing the subject. But if they’re talking about husbands, ba’lim, as in gods, then worship is the next logical topic.

Because the Samaritans believed the presence of the true God was found atop Mt. Gerizim and the Jews believed the presence of the true God was found in the Temple in Jerusalem.

They’re talking about God.

The presence of God. Where God is to be found in spirit and truth.

Not the 5 false gods who can’t nourish, can’t quench but can give only stale water as though out of a cracked cistern, not Caesar who presumed to be a god and humiliated his subjects and forced them to tote water like slaves, but the true and living God who can give light and life like an ever flowing stream, like Living Water.

And that’s why this seventh suitor, this Mr. Perfect who embodies Michael Bolton’s first chart topping hit “How am I Supposed to Live Without You,” this would-be husband who promises to complete her like Rene does for Jerry Maguire.

He turns to her at the well.

Jesus turns to her at the well and he says to her the very same thing God said to Moses at the Burning Bush. Exactly what God said when he first revealed his name to his People. What God first said when he vowed to be their ba’al.

“I am” Jesus says to her. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.

He’s all that is.

Ego eimi.

“I am.”

And then she drops her bucket, the symbol of how her previous 5 husbands have left her parched and wanting- because they’re not real. She drops her bucket, the symbol of her 6th husband’s subjugation and abuse.

She drops her bucket.

And then she continues the storytelling convention by running off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union.

———————-

Except-

No one fetches the chuppah. No one shouts mazel tov. No one kills the fatted calf and kicks on the Michael Bolton music.

John continues the storytelling convention of the wedding at the well. She runs off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union just like all the women of scripture before her have done. Come and see, she says.

But then, there’s no wedding, no marriage, no exchange of vows.

It’s like John chooses right here to use another storytelling convention.

A cliffhanger. A season-ending ambiguity.

To Be Continued…

Because, remember, it’s a convention.

She’s just a stand-in, a symbol. She represents her people. All people.

Including, you.

The union is supposed to be with you.

You’re the one- because of you he can’t keep his mind on nothing else. He’d trade everything- power and divinity, his life- for the good he finds in you.

Sure, you’re bad. Sure, you’re a sinner. But his love for you is such…he can’t see it.

I doubt he’d ever turn his back on his best friend, but to him- you can deny him, betray him, run away from him; you can mock him, spit upon him, hang him out to dry on a cross- you can do no wrong.

He’d give up everything for you. Empty himself. Put on flesh. Take the form of a slave. Sleep out in the rain. He’d give you everything he’s got, even his life.

He’d come back from the grave just to hold onto your precious love.

And sure, I’m just cheesily quoting “When a Man Loves a Woman” right now, but the point couldn’t be more serious.

Of all the other suitors in the world, of all the idols vying for your love and affection, he’s the seventh. He’s the light to your darkness, the shepherd to little lamb you.

He’s your Mr. Darcy. The Alvy to your Annie Hall. The Tracy to your Hepburn.

Only he can complete you.

John stops the storytelling convention right here.

There’s no chuppah, no DJ, no mazel to.

There’s no exchange of vows.

Because John’s waiting for you to say “I do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

Finally, I’m now done with Part III. I hope to get all this to video format sometime in the coming year as well.

III. The Son

31. Is Trinity an Extra-Biblical Invention of the Church?

It’s true the doctrine of the Trinity is not delineated in scripture, but then, ironically, neither is the doctrine of sola scriptura so why choose the unimaginative option?

Trinity is not an invention of the Church imposed upon scripture. Rather, it is the only possible grammar by which the Church can speak of God given the witness of scripture and the testimony of the saints and apostles that Jesus is the Son; that is, Jesus is God.

For example, we’re told by John the man-who-had-been-blind worships Jesus. The man-who-had-been-blind is a good synagogue-going Jew. As such, he knows he can only worship God. But he worships Jesus who has healed him. If Jesus now can be worshipped as God, how is this revelation disclosed to the man-who-had-been-blind if not through the advocacy of the witness, the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would proceed him as he has proceeded from the Father?

 Trinity is not a coy and arbitrary invention of the Church imposed upon scripture for if it were we would be the worst of all possible sinners, idolators.

Trinity is instead the only possible manner of speaking of God given what we, like he man-who-had-been-blind, have learned: Jesus is Lord. The man-who-had-been-blind learns this of Jesus and then worships Jesus. Very often we are blind only in other ways learn this of Jesus only by worshipping Jesus.

“Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord,* I believe.’ And he worshipped him.”

– John 9

Alternate Title: “Beard Envy”
Jason enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Addison Hodges Hart, the elder brother of David Bentley Hart- who was his student- and the author of the great books Strangers and Pilgrims and Taking Jesus at his Word. Not only does Addison sound just like DBH, he speaks at length of the contemplative life, how to rethink the faith in a post-Christian culture, and the ins and outs of how he leads bible study for the curious and unchurched.

Takeaway from this episode: Addison thinks Christians need to learn how to become winsome to the world again.

Also, since you’ve bugged us about the queue…Next week – Melissa Febos Week after – Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Scot X. McKnight, Robert Jenson, and multiple parts with David Bentley Hart. Oh, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

30. Does Trinity Mean We Worship 3 Gods?

Yes.

If you think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as ‘persons’ of the Trinity.

But the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are not persons; they are relations.

A “person” is an independent, individual subject. Neither the Son nor the Spirit are independent from the Father. None of the three are discrete subjects so as to be individualized from one another. Each of the three is unintelligible apart from the relationship we call Trinity.

The Son is the self-conception of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the delight the Father takes in relationship with the Son. Recall, the Father does not have a relationship with the Son nor vice versa. Rather they ARE relationship.

Not only do we not worship 3 Gods, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess only 1 single, unified will.

In other words, Trinity helps us read correctly the story of incarnation, cross, and resurrection as the outworking of the single, unified will of God; that is, Trinity prevents us from ever supposing the Father’s and the Son’s wills are posed against one another in the Son’s sacrifice upon the cross. We call God Trinity to remember the Father did not demand another’s death nor did the Son offer his life to anyone else in our stead. Only because God is Trinity, because Father, Son, and Spirit are relations not persons, can we profess the Judged is none other than the Judge.

Father, Son, and Spirit do not differ in any way. In each case, what they are is God and at no point in their internal life or their external work are they anything but fully God. The Father has no attributes or features the Son lacks; the Spirit has no attributes or features the Father lacks.

Because they are relations not persons, they have a single will:

Whatever we say of the Son is true of the Father.

Whatever we say of the Father is true of the Son.

And whatever we say of the Spirit is true of both.

“For I have come down from heaven to do my Father’s will.” – John 6.38

Book tour pimping continues apace.

Recently, I was on NPR’s Things Not Seen with David Dault. Check out the interview here.

Also, I was on the Christian Humanist Podcast. Check that one out here.

I’ll be at the Virginia Festival of the Book this weekend in Charlottesville and preaching at Wesley Memorial UMC there on Sunday am. Be there.

 

 

This episode of Strangely Warmed closes out our lectionary conversation with Stan the Man.

Taylor and I riff on oils and anointing, fixed-gear bikes, and Jesus praying Psalm 23 (‘prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies’) during Holy Week. Stan reads to us from one of his sermons on this week’s lectionary texts and clearly enjoys his own jokes!

Eric Hall will join us next week to close out Lent, Tony Jones will dish with us on Holy Week, and we have Brian Zahnd teed up for Eastertide.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Here’s Alex Joyner’s review of my book in the Englewood Review of Books:

Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know.  The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny.  Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix)  This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.  Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive.  Plus, too, he’s funny.

I can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press.  Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting.  Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men).  A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.

A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer.  She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding it—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework.  In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated.  “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)

In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book.  Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines.  (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value.  When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.

The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here.  He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch.  The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.

Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body.  I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional.  But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.

Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era.  In Karr’s The Art of  Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice.  “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.”  And this means digging down beneath the pretty.

Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book.  But he values the rawness he has experienced.  His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)

This is a searing book.  The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain.  But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto.  Not ‘ha ha’ joy.  But life for sure.  It’s a journey worth taking with him.

——–
Alex Joyner is an author and United Methodist pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  He is the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine [Englewood Review, 2014]. He blogs at AlexJoyner.com.

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Romans 5.1-11 which begins thus:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…”

The question is- or should be- by whose faith are we justified? Ours? Or Christ’s? By faith here in Romans 5 is an echo of an earlier theme Paul picks up from Romans 3:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23.

Sometimes a preposition can make all the difference.

I remember my first theology course as a freshman undergraduate, Elements of Christian Thought, with Euene Rogers. I’d just become a Christian as a Junior in High School and was only beginning to become acquainted with the actual content of our faith. The topic one week was Justification & Salvation, and I remember another student asking the TA:

‘If Christians believe we’re justified by faith in Christ, then what about people like me who don’t have faith, who’d maybe like to have faith but can’t seem to find it?

Is it our fault then if we’re not saved? Why faith is essential why is it so hard?

That seems like a pretty limited God.’

It hit me then and still does as a very good question. Not only does it make essential something that is sincerely elusive for many people, it also turns faith into a kind of work- the very opposite of Paul’s point- in that we’re saved by our ability to believe.

Justification by (our) faith (in) Christ turns faith into the very thing Paul railed against: our work.

That is, religion

The irony of the historic Faith vs. Works, Gospel vs. Law debate among Christians, however, is that the very idea of justification coming through faith in Christ is premised on a bad translation of scripture. 

Almost everywhere, other than the King James, that is written in English it is a wrong translation. In Greek, the actual wording is  that we’re justified “through the faith OF Jesus Christ.”

Grammar Lesson: 

It is a possessive or genitive phrase. Now a genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. In other words, it is like the phrase, the Love of God. That is either our love for God, or the love that God has. In one case it is objective (love for God), in the other subjective (God is the subject) and it describes the love that belongs to God, or God’s love.

In Greek, the faith of Jesus Christ is also a subjective genitive, but has been interpreted as an objective in almost every translation.

Why is this important?

Because it is not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us.

Faith isn’t a work.

Isn’t our work at least.

The faith that saves us and justifies us is the obedience of Christ.

In other words, it is his faith at work in us and in our hearts which produces righteousness and the God kind of life. This explains why faith is a gift and why we are saved through faith by grace and not as a work of our own. It is not our faith which justifies, but the faith of Jesus given to us, which resides in us.

The good news is, it isn’t my faith that matters. It is the faith OF Jesus Christ given to me, that when God regards you or me God isn’t measuring our feeble attempts at faithfulness. In other words, when God looks upon us God chooses not to see us but to see Jesus.

 

This upcoming Sunday’s lectionary passage from Romans 5 includes verse 9:

“Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.”

Like many upper middle class mainline Protestants, which is to say white Christians, I’ve long taken issue with the concept of divine wrath, believing it to conflict with the God whose most determinative attribute is Goodness itself. Whenever I’ve pondered the possibility of God’s anger I’ve invariably thought about it directed at me. I’m no saint, sure, but I’m no great sinner either. The notion that God’s wrath could be fixed upon me made God seem loathsome to me, a god not God.

We commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. 

The cross is more properly about God working justice. 

The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Fleming Rutledge reminds readers in The Crucifixion, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s magnificat and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.

To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God.

And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.

Rather than forgiveness, we see on the cross God’s wrath poured out against Sin with a capital S and the upon the systems (Paul would say the Powers) created by Sin. On the correspondence between Sin as injustice and God’s wrath, consider Isaiah’s initial chapter:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow…

Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes! I will turn my hand against you…

Christianly speaking, forgiveness is a vapid, meaningless concept apart from justice. The cross is a sign that something in the world is terribly wrong and needs to be put right. The Sin-responsible injustice of the world requires rectification.

Only God can right what’s wrong, and the cross is how God chooses to do it. God pours out himself into Jesus and then, on the cross, God pours out his wrath against Jesus and, in doing so, upon the Sin that unjustly nailed him there.

Summarizing the prophets’ word of divine wrath in light of the cross, Rutledge writes:

Because justice is such a central part of God’s nature, he has declared enmity  against every form of injustice. His wrath will come upon those who have exploited the poor and weak; he will not permit his purpose to be subverted.’

Despite the queasiness God’s wrath invokes among mainline and liberal Protestants, it has been a source of hope and empowerment to the oppressed peoples of the world.

The wrath of God is not an artifactual belief to be embarrassed over, it is the always timely good news that the outrage we feel over the world’s injustice is ‘first of all outrage in the heart of God,’ which means wrath is not a contradiction of God’s goodness but is the steadfast outworking of it.

The biblical picture of God’s anger is different from the caricature of a petulant, arbitrary god so often conjured when divine wrath is considered in the abstract. ‘The wrath of God,’ Rutledge writes, ‘is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.’ Put so and understood rightly, it’s actually the non-angry god who appears morally distasteful, for ‘a non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.’

Maybe, I can’t help but wonder, we prefer that god, the one who is a passive accomplice to injustice, because, on some subconscious level, that is what we know ourselves to be.

Accomplices to injustice.

 

Perhaps that is what is truly threatening to so many of us about a wrathful God; we know that the bible’s ire is fixed not so much on the hands-on oppressors as it is against the indifference of the masses.

As Rutledge points out:

 ’,,,in the bible, the idolatry and negligence of groups en masse receive most of the attention, from Amos’ withering depiction of rich suburban housewives  (Amos 4.1) to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13.34) to James’ rebuke of an insensitive local congregation (James 2.2-8).

As Brett Dennen puts it in his song, ‘Ain’t No Reason,’ slavery is stitched into every fiber of our clothes. We’re implicated in the world’s injustice even if we like to think ourselves not guilty of it. Rutledge believes this explains why so much of popular Christianity in America projects a distorted view of reality; by that, she means sentimental. Our escapist mentality protects us not just from the unendurable aspects of life in the world but also from the burden of any responsibility for them.

Such sentimentality, however popular and apparently harmless, has its victims. I’m convinced we risk something precious when we jettison God’s wrath from our Christianity. We risk losing our own outrage.

Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion might’ve convinced all on its own:

 ‘If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not  yet understood the depths of God. It depends on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ.

To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.

Why would we not go to Duke just to talk with Stanley Hauerwas? Even though Stanley doesn’t know what a podcast is, he welcomed us to his 3rd floor office for a candid sitdown.

Not only did Dr. Hauerwas give us books from his vast collection, he even offered us some his classic Hauerwas humor. In this conversation, Stanley reflects on the Gospel lection for the third Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ quenching conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.

The texts for Lent 3 are:

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Stanley Hauerwas will be back for the next few week’s of Lent, Eric Hall will join us to close out Lent, Tony Jones will dish with us on Holy Week, and we have Brian Zahnd teed up for Eastertide.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Did you know Crackers and Grape Juice is now in the top 3-4% of all podcasts on the interwebs?

Boom.

All the more reason for you to check out our latest guest. Ched Myers’ commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man, is one of the most influential books I read in seminary.

Crackers and Grape Juice got to interview Ched Myers to discuss what solidarity and resistance look like in the age of Trump and social media.

Ched is an activist theologian, biblical scholar, popular educator, author, organizer and advocate who has for 35 years been challenging and supporting Christians to engage in peace and justice work and radical discipleship.

Coming up, we’ve got conversations for you with David Bentley Hart, Richard Rohr as well as Robert Jenson. And don’t forget to check out our lectionary-based offshoot of the podcast. We’re calling it Strangely Warmed.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Covert Christians

Jason Micheli —  March 9, 2017 — 3 Comments

I take an attribute of strong preaching to be the ability to take a cliche or convention and upend it. Here, my Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra, takes John 3 and counterintuitively makes Nicodemus the hero of the story. In a world of 3.16 eyeblack and politically compromised evangelicals, this is a fresh word from this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel:

A Sermon Preached at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

New York, New York

Sunday, May 28, 2006

by Robert Dykstra

John 3:1-10, John 19:38-42

I thought her invitation a bit presumptuous, a bit out of place, though it was benign enough as invitations go. It was an altar call, really, and I havenít anything much against altar calls, though I donít ever remember issuing one myself as a preacher, perhaps for fear of a lack of any response. But this particular altar call seemed a bit unusual, a little presumptuous, a little out of place.

The place was Miller Chapel on the Princeton Seminary campus, back in my days as a student there. Her invitation came at one of the seminaryís brief weekday morning worship services. The preacher on that particular day was a guest minister from outside the seminary community, a distinguished and eloquent African-American woman  ñ I canít even remember her name now. But what I do remember is that at the end of her lively and powerful sermon ñ the way of African American sermons and far more compelling than our usual white-boy-student-sermon fare ñ this preacher issued an altar call to those of us in the congregation. She asked those who wished to commit their lives to Christ to come forward into the chancel for a prayer.

Well, I found this invitation a little odd, a little out of place, a little presumptuous of her. No one can enroll as a student or be hired on as a faculty member at Princeton Seminary without claiming to be a Christian, though I canít fully guarantee that Jesus himself would claim us all as such. You have to say youíre a Christian to get admitted to Princeton Seminary, so whatís up with this preacher issuing an altar call at a place like this, in a place like Miller Chapel?

I thought to myself, No one is going to go forward to commit their lives to Jesus at Princeton Seminary.

I was dead wrong, of course. Of the perhaps hundred or so students and faculty in the chapel that day, a huge throng of worshipers made their way to the front of the sanctuary. In fact, when the procession ended, I looked around and noticed that there were maybe only four or five of us still seated in our pews. The preacher herself looked out on us pathetic holdouts and noticed it, too. So she said straight to our faces, ìYou folks still sitting out there might as well come on up here, too.î

Now it was I, of course, who was feeling a little presumptuous, or, at least, a little conspicuous. Who did I think I was to imagine that I didnít need to commit my life to Jesus, especially when everyone else in that room seemed to think that they themselves did? No matter that, as far as I knew, Iíd been committed to Jesus as long as I could remember. I recall as a boy still in my booster seat asking my parents how God could be everywhere if we couldnít see God ñ asking questions like that and loving how they would reply: God was inside us, they might say; or God is Spirit, they might say.

I remember as a sixth-grader on the cusp of adolescence attending a Presbyterian summer church camp ñ my first time away from home alone for a whole week, a time full of excitement ñ loving every minute, falling in love perhaps for the first time not only with another camper, but fully, knowingly, with Jesus, feeling him in my heart, openly committing my life to him, praying to him, singing songs to him.

As a high school boy I was allowed to become the church organist of our little congregation, and I took this responsibility very seriously, practicing hymns from the same green hymn book you use here at Fifth Avenue, sometimes late into the night all alone in the darkened sanctuary, a room tiny by this sanctuaryís standard but that seemed voluminous to me at that age ñ alone in the dark, the little light on the organ the only one burning. And I felt warm and secure and so at home in the quiet darkness of Godís house. And I still feel that way today, perhaps most at home of any place I could be in a sanctuary like this, especially if all alone in it, especially at night with one light burning.

So in chapel as a seminary student that day, I felt Iíd been committed to Jesus for a long time. But I knew what I had to do, so at the preacherís bidding to us holdouts still in the pews, I slunk up out of my seat, feeling a bit chastised, and made my way with the other four or so of my less-than-devout comrades to pray with everyone else there in the chancel. But I knew by then that I was a little more reluctant to be born again this time after having been born so many times before.

*******

Thereís a part of me that admires the courage of a preacherís altar call to seminarians. Thereís something exactly right about that invitation. But I think itís also true that, as Iíve grown older, Iíve grown even more uneasy than I was as a student in chapel that day with the kind of public declarations of Christian faith that have grown increasingly familiar and have become not a little divisive in our churches and in our nation today. I get nervous about all those Christians who borrow the ìborn againî language from this very passage in John 3 ñ the chapter of the Bible that contains its most comforting verse, ìFor God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…î ñ but Christians who wear that ìborn againî language as a badge of honor, who use this language to fashion a kind of litmus test or entrance exam into Christian faith, into true discipleship, use it therefore as an instrument of exclusion rather than of grace. Thereís part of me that wishes I had resisted the preacherís second invitation that day to the four of us still remaining in our pews, wishes I had stayed put and prayed by myself there where I was sitting. That would have been more the Christian I now want to be.

I think Iím a born-again Christian going increasingly undercover, becoming increasingly private, increasingly stealthy about my faith. Iím becoming more like Nicodemus, a man who knows that thereís great power and great risk in meeting Jesus, a man who does not take lightly such an encounter with him, who knows thereís a lot at stake. I think Iím someone who now prefers to talk with Jesus in the dark of night, in the middle of the night, as when a boy in that empty church sanctuary with just one lamp burning.

*******

Nicodemusí story, of course, moves in just the opposite direction. His moves from meeting Jesus first in the dark ñ Nick at Night ñ to, by the end of Jesusí life, embracing Jesusí body in broad daylight. You see, Nicodemus shows up several times in Johnís gospel, each time appearing more bold, more public, more decisive about following Jesus, about being seen as his disciple, as if Jesusí lesson that first night about his needing to be born again, born from above, really took hold in his life, really sank in. If my story begins with a public love for Jesus in the daylight to increasingly private encounters with him at night, Nicodemusí story moves from a shadowy encounter with Jesus at night to a powerful declaration of his love for him in the light of day. It is Nicodemus, after all, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite Jewish ruling council just 70 members strong, the council that proved finally to be Jesusí undoing, his death ñ this Nicodemus is the man who, with the help of his friend Joseph of Arimathea and at great personal risk, embalms Jesusí body after his death, and he offers this painful and tender declaration of love, this intimate final gift to his friend, no longer under cover of darkness.

*******

The nationís most famous undertaker, Thomas Lynch, lives in Milford, Michigan, a small town just north of Detroit, where he buries his friends and neighbors for a living. He also writes amazing books, the reason heís now our nationís most famous undertaker. In his book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch tells of preparing the body of his dead friend, Milo Hornsby:

Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs. Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.

Milo is dead….

[In the hospital where he died,] Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe….

I sign for him and get him out of there….

Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under florescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself ñ eyes wide open, mouth agape, returning to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features ñ eyes and mouth ñ that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Miloís hands ñ one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.

They will not be doing anything anymore, either.

I wash his hands before positioning them [Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 9-11].

*******

Thatís what Nicodemus will end up doing, though in the light of day, for Jesus. Setting his features. Washing his hands.

Maybe thatís the direction of faith that Jesus prefers, from darkness to light, from stealthy discipleship to public declarations of born-again faith. Maybe thatís what Jesus wants, itís probably what this story in John chapter three is trying to suggest.

But the more that contemporary American Christians insist that everyone become born again and insist too that we all sign on to a prescribed and unyielding roster of accompanying social and political doctrines; the more, so to speak, that weíre pressured to come up to the front of the chapel: the more I want to seek out Jesus in private, at night, undercover, like the early Nicodemus.

The more they press us to become daylight Christians, bumper-sticker Christians, card-carrying, banner-waving Christians, the more I appreciate those stealthy Christians whom I have known and increasingly want to emulate along the way: Christians who are not always so sure of their status before God, seekers who find their encounters with Jesus to be a risky business, who go about their faith without ostentation and perhaps also without complete assurance, in secret, in darkness, undercover, uncertain. The more that born-again Christians fill the airwaves with their certitudes and self-assurance, the more I want to be that Christian with just one lamp burning in the middle of the night.

ìThe wind blows where it chooses,î Jesus tells Nicodemus there in the darkness, ìand you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.î The wind blows where it chooses. God blows where God chooses. We do not control God any more than the wind.

Your being born, my being born, though we can be reasonably sure that we were once born, was not in your or my control, is not something we can take much credit for having done. We had very little to say about our being born the first time, and we would do well to have very little to say now about our being born again, born from above.

It happened once, yes, your birth; it happens sometimes, yes, being born again. But itís not something to spend much time talking about, not if you want to retain any friends. Itís not something in which to take pride or boast. You didnít have that much to do with it. No, better instead just to get on with the business of living, of loving, of serving, of worshiping, of picking up your friends at 2 a.m. and doing for them what needs to be done, however painful or dismal the task. Quiet Christians, steady Christians, stealthy Christians, modest, unassuming, grateful, lunar Christians. Have you known any Christians like that in your life?

*******

A few years ago, as a promising young theology professor at Notre Dame in her early forties, Catherine LaCugna was told by her doctors ìthat there was nothing more that they could do for her and that cancer would kill her within a few months.î At receiving this terrible news, her friend Kathleen Norris writes, LaCugna ìdid not run away to nurse her wounds but continued teaching. She told only a few close friends that she was near death, and she went on living the life she had chosen. She was able to teach until a few days before she died.î

Reflecting on her friendís life and death, Norris says:

I can scarcely imagine what it meant to her students when they found out what she had done, when they considered that they and the dry, underappreciated work of systematic theology that they had been engaged in together meant so much to her. Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the churchís liturgical day, ìMay the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,î it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others. (Kathleen Norris, ìPerfection,î Christian Century, February 18, 1998: 180).

I think of Norrisí words and of LaCugnaís death from time to time, for they capture the kind of Christian I want to be ñ quiet, steady, faithful, courageous, but, oh, so aware that time is short, the stakes high, the questions we pose to Jesus in the dead of night so very important, with so much hanging in the balance.

Darkness. Risk. Courage. Faithfulness. A stealth Christian. Thatís the kind that, more and more, Iíd like to be.

*******

Remember Thomas Lynch taking care of his friend, Milo Hornsby? Lynch says:

When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.

After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, ìNever mind thatî is what Milo said. ìOne hand washes the other,î [is what Milo said].

I place Miloís right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesnít matter. One hand washes the other either way [Lynch, 11].

*******

One hand washes the other. Thereís Nicodemus at the end of Johnís gospel washing the hand that once washed his, embalming Jesus.

Nicodemus is not filling the airwaves with endless chatter about his having been born again, though he may well have been thus born. Heís just risking his life, his status, his reputation in this last, quiet, heroic act of love for his friend.

Heís not talking about his birth. Heís living his life. Heís giving his life to the one who so loved the world, to the one who gave his life for him.

Will you?

Not going to lie, I can retire now happy to hear Stan the Man say in this episode “I think that’s exactly right, Jason.” In this episode, Stanley Hauerwas talks with us about the John 3 lection for this coming Sunday, particularly about the problems with preaching a cliche, the trouble with satisfaction theories of the atonement, and what ‘salvation’ means.

Not only did Dr. Hauerwas give us books from his vast collection, he even offered us some his classic Hauerewas humor.

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.h 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.i
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Stanley Hauerwas will be back for the next few week’s of Lent, Eric Hall will join us to close out Lent, Tony Jones will dish with us on Holy Week, and Brian Zahnd teed up for Eastertide.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Jazz vocalist Darden Purcell and Eric Sabo’s trio provided our music for the first weekend of Lent. Because they were there and because I’ve always been a fan of So I Married an Axe Murderer I decided to write my sermon on Psalm 51 as a beat poem with the band underneath me.

‘It works.’ It works, indeed,

It’s more buttoned-down

Than ‘Christos Anesti!’

But such were the first

Easter words pronounced

Over the new heart

Of-

Louis Washkansky.

Louis-

A Lithuanian Jew

Was born in 1922.

Louis fought Mussolini.

Having seen El Duce

Strung up by his heels,

(like a fascist pig at the butcher)

Louis Washkansky

Settled down in Cape Town

And opened a grocery.

Until-

54 years

Pricks to the finger,

And shots to the guts,

Up and down sugar.

Then-

Pain down arms, elephant on chest,

1, 2, 3 cardiac arrests

Rendered him habeus corpus

For an experimental test.

Louis Washkansky

The first person after 50

Dogs before him to

Another’s heart receive

(Man’s best friend, indeed).

After 9 hours under,

60 attending,

Louis Washkansky

Of the green grocery

Opened his numb eyes

-delivered-

With the heart of a

Girl, 20-something girl

Beating inside his

Bruised and cracked chest.

His heart’s former owner-

She had been struck by a driver

Who’d had one too many.

It’s always 5…somewhere.

The girl with the heart

Was on her way

To buy tea.

And cake.

Yeah.

From her local grocery.

By fate or by lots,

Her heart became another’s to bear:

Louis Washkansky’s.

When-

Louis Washkansky

First fluttered his eyes,

His chest beating fresh

And faithfully as

The checkout on aisle

Number 5,

“It works”

Said-

The doctor, a preacher’s kid

From Cape Town,

Like God b’fore the new hewn

Grave: ‘It works.’

In Afrikaans,

Said: ‘It works.’

The girl’s grief-blind Father,

The doctor’s trial and error,

Had given the the grocer

Exactly what each of us

Would gladly broker:

A new- a different- heart.

If we had the hearts

Sufficient to tell

The truth to each other:

My need is as great as that grocer’s.

My desire to back trace my steps

Just as desperate

As his donor.

What the doctor concluded

of Louis Washkansky.

What You first declared

About Adam and Eve

Is what my heart longs to hear

You pronounce over me:

‘It works.’

My heart, it works.

But for that to happen

I too first require

Some kind of surgery.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

What harm could it be?

I’ll just repeat:

mercy.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

That’s what I most need.

Without one, the best I

Can do is plead for

Your, on your mercy.

Which is, perhaps, the

Ultimate, stinging

Irony

In a life that hides

Behind them

Trades in them

Thrives on them.

What I’m so stingy to bequeath

Is the one thing I’m starving to receive.

Mercy.

I’m not talking about the one an’ done

Caught red-handed, get out of jail free-dom

Sort of mercy.

Not the snake-oily, Holy Ghost, Fatherweejus mercy.

Not the hair-sprayed preacher’s mercy.

Not the jury of your peers’ mercy.

I’m talking about the mercy that’s weighted down

By hard and heavy consonants that break bonds

Cut oceans in two

Crack water from rock.

Hesed.

Steadfast.

The

No matter what.

You do despite what I do

Mercy.

Have that kinda on me.

But even this plea of mine

Points out my problematic plot line

It’s alway all about

Me, me, me.

You upstairs

The man down the street

She across the bed

I’m like a dyslexic St Paul:

The one thing I ask of you

The one thing I want?

I do not do.

The one thing I ask of you

Is the last I’ll offer you.

When it comes to mercy,

It’s better to receive

Than it is to believe

You must give

It.

When it comes to mercy?

I am reticent.

I am hesitant.

I am no better than Maleficent.

Grace is less amazing

When it’s another’s song.

Trust me-

‘Tis better to be found

Than to get up and to find.

But You already see my blindness

Know my mind, know,

Know that what I solicit

I so seldom show.

I need a Billy Mays magic miracle.

Shazamm!

Over my sin-stained self.

Not 3 Hail Marys, nor alms for the poor

Costlier even than

Easy installments of $19.94.

More chi-chi than gold

Or frankincense and myrrh.

Like Nathan to David,

Like Nicholson to Cruise,

The truth about me

I can’t handle it.

Because I’ve exercised so much equity

With my iniquity

My sin is in me,

Ground down deep-like wine and dirt and blood-

To the fibers and sub-flooring

Of my soul and my Being.

If I were a suit you took the cleaners

You’d get charged extra

And told not to expect me

For at last 3 business

Days- you’d hear her disgust in Korean

As she wondered to the woman

With pins in her teeth

Exactly what you’d done in me.

Mercy is what  I need.

My sin is ever before me .

Like grace’s doppleganger

In, with and under

Just say the words, no reply

I am not worthy

Of your mercy.

My sin is ever before me

Every pair of eyes

The most unflattering of mirrors

Revealing not the extra 2-inches

Or the male-pattern baldness

But the mystery that we’re

The only members of your handiwork

Who know not how

To be creatures.

Behind my every offense-

If I take measure,

That’s what I should confess:

Thinking the world here for my pleasure

Not me made for my Creator.

Failure to be human:

I’m guilty as charged.

And it’s crime that moves all the rest of you

To the back of the line.

Because against You

You Alone

Have I sinned.

To you I gave the finger.

And uttered ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’

To you I sent the all CAPS email with the

!!!

I unfriended You.

For your Tea Party bat crazy,

Your Moveon.org rant.

And hung up when You picked up.

To You I told the

Little white lie

and the outright one.

To You  I raised my voice for no good reason.

And said ‘Yes Dear, I’m listening.’

To You, I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

up here

It was Your eyes I forgot were

To You I was a noisy gong, a clanging symbol

Neither patient nor kind

Keeping track of Your trespass

Just as I expect You to forgive mine.

Every sin I’ve committed

Every person I’ve harmed

Count them together

It adds up to one:

You.

Against You alone have I sinned.

Your ledger longer than any other’s.

You’ve seen my worst, every inward part

So You know better than me

How sorely I need

A new and clean heart.

A clean heart!

I’m so far removed

From my mother’s womb

I cannot imagine

What possessing said heart would mean for my other organs

For my ears and my tongue and my mind.

Louis Washkansky knew.

For a time- well, if not clean-

At least more innocent than mine.

The grocer from Cape Town survived

With the unlucky girl’s inside

Him for 18 short days.

But 18 days!

For 400 hours

Louis Washkansky

The grocer who’d seen horrors

The battles and blood

Trenches and marches

Of war.

The camps, the mass graves, the ovens.

For 18 days-

Louis Washkansky

Found respite inside

an innocent’s heart.

Do the memories recede?

Does the mind forget?

What the heart never learned?

For 18 days

A war-jaded vet

Quickened with her pulse-

Her naiveté-

That still more days lay

Ahead of her.

Had she had her first kiss?

Been spurned by a friend?

Acquired the scars

Which always become

our kids’ first  lessons?

With her’s beating inside him

I wonder-

Louis Washkansky-

Did he love his wife, finally

With a love she’d always fancied?

Did he hear what she left unsaid?

Did he show his children

Her love and attention?

Did he sashay around

And leave the toilet seat down?

Did he listen and feel

And, for once, find the right words

To: Honey?

What are you thinkin’?

With her inside him

Was it freeing?

To finally, truthfully, be singing:

‘I’m every woman.’

Or was it just enough for the grocer

To hear

What we’d mortgage heaven to broker

What we’d plead for You to impart:

‘It works’

A new, a clean, heart.

Louis Washkansky

His new heart, her old one

Beat for only 17 days longer

His/her doctor, the Cape Town preacher’s kid

Could not give

What only You can offer.

But still-

I’ve got to wonder

Can even You impart

Such an illogical grace

As a new, clean heart?

I mean-

How can what is Yours only

Be mine?

Without it being less than You?

How can the infinite

Lodge

In this small space I’ve carved for it?

Given what impossible surgery

A new, a clean heart would require

The metaphysical

To say nothing of the biological

Might it be sufficient to desire

Not what in me You must do

A new heart to own

But just You.

You alone.

If so, then the point

Is not a doctor

To bind us

To extend us 18 or 15 or a few more days

But to break our spirit

So that, broken, our

Lips may proclaim Your

Praise.

Sam, above in the middle, is one of my favorite youth of all time. He got married today (Crap, I’m old), and his Dad, who’s one of my favorite lay people of all time, asked if I could write a note to Sam for the occasion.

Dear Sam,

Congratulations on your wedding day! Your Dad asked me to write a note to you for the occasion. Likely your Dad meant to throw me a bone since I apparently didn’t rate to officiate the service; nevertheless, I’m honored to oblige and to participate in any capacity.

It’s been a few years since you all moved away but, before you did, I knew you well enough to write in your college reference letter that I hoped my own boys would grow up to be like you one day. As a UVA fan I take a dark view of the University of Kansas, yet even I can’t imagine UK has had such a corrosive effect on your character as to amend my previous appraisal of you. Your bride-to-be is fortunate to have found you and, because I trust the sort of woman you would choose to marry, I imagine you should be grateful to have found yourself discovered by her.

It’s been a while since we’ve talked, Sam, but before anyone in a monkey suit says ‘Dearly Beloved’ and before either of you say ‘I do,’ I’ve got a damn good question for you, a question I ask just about everyone I marry:

What are you thinking?

How can you two be ready? No matter your age or your experience in life, how can you, or anyone, possibly be ready to make such promises? Have you read the fine print we with Christian-speak call ‘vows?’

Trust.

Fidelity.

Intimacy.

Self-denial.

Sickness.

Poverty.

Forever!

Except, it’s not really forever in a happily ever after way either, is it? Because you’re also vowing to help each other die one day too. I mean it in every possible sense: that’s some holy shit. No matter how many times we have sat in pews or plastic chairs and listened to people like me announce “Dearly Beloved,” those are daunting promises to make to one another.

Indeed, I believe, if God has not raised Jesus from the dead those promises are unintelligible and may also be irresponsible.

No wonder your Dad wanted to write to you!

In the same way parents often want to have their pastor strike up a relationship with their youth as a way of keeping their youth from having sex too early, I bet your Dad wanted me to write you a letter to inoculate your marriage against the unintended wounds and petty havoc that humans in love do to each other. In other words, I’ll wager your Dad wanted me to dispense some wisdom by which your marriage will flourish and bear fruit or, at the very least, your Dad was hoping I might have some pointers that’ll keep you and your beloved (for now?) from killing each other.

It’s an understandable wish on your Dad’s part, Sam. These are enormous, outrageous promises to make. Like all aspects of Christianity, marriage is a high-risk adventure, for a life lived together can expose the worst in people, all the intricate flaws and foibles that come with human nature. When you and your bride say ‘I do’ to each other in no small part you’re saying ‘I do’ to the risk the other now brings into your life and your future.

     With your ‘I do’ you’re accepting the risk that your spouse will have within their power the ability to do tremendous and even irreparable harm to you.

No, you’re not accepting the risk; you’re placing it like a weapon in each other’s hands. Like in Isaiah’s vision, the potential weapon- your trust, your true self, your vulnerability- is also, potentially, a tool, the means by which you two can harvest fruit greater than what the two of you bring individually to your relationship. Or, as the Church likes to say, the two shall (shall always sounds more like a hope than a guarantee, doesn’t it?) become one flesh.

Marriage is risky business, Sam. Your ‘I do’ not only bestows to your bride the power to wound you one day, it also acknowledges that the person to whom you say ‘I do’ is not only the person standing next to you; it’s whomever that person will become, something that is unknown and unseen to the both of you.

Because you’re saying ‘I do’ to a future stranger, Sam, it’s always good for Christians to remember that Christians are required to love one another. Even if they are married. Indeed you’ll find soon enough the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary skill to love your spouse.

You’ll find them an enemy from time to time precisely because the person you marry will not be the same person 15, 30, 45 years hence. That’s one of the risks you take, but as far as the church is concerned it’s a beautiful risk. It’s an act of- no, it’s a leap of- faith.

Of course the rub that comes with this risk is that neither will you 15, 30, 45 years hence be the same person who says ‘I do’ today.

     Today, with vows and rings, you give yourself over to be transformed by the perceptions of the other.

Today you covenant to let the love and perceptions of your bride shape you anew. Trust me, ignore all of the above. This is the biggest risk you accept with your ‘I do.’ It’s scary as hell.

If you read my book (if not, read it on your honeymoon) you know I like to tell couples ‘You never know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying.’ What I seldom tell them but will tell you just because I love you more than most of them is that this rule has an even more frightening corollary:

You are never as fully seen and known as you are seen and known by the person to whom you’re married.

     Marriage isn’t just a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you’ve married; marriage is a process in which you discover who the stranger is that you call ‘you.’

If the fullness of what it means to love is to know the other with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, then to be loved means that our heart and mind and soul and strength are fully exposed and seen and known by another.

And God, that’s scary.

It’s not often that our heart or mind or soul or strength measure up to our own estimation of them. When we’re in love, before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person. We have an incomplete understanding of our self. We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well our spouse eventually will know us. And so, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were.

In a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide and you’ll find yourself naked to her in more places than the bedroom. Your heart and mind and soul and strength- all of it gets exposed on a daily basis.

The relationship advice books will tell you that there’s no secrets in marriage, but what’s so difficult about being married is that there aren’t nearly as many secrets as we’d like. It’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed in marriage. It’s your own.

It’s scary as hell, Sam.

But, without that kind of ‘nakedness’ before the other, there’s really no other reason for marriage.

     Marriage, for Christians at least, isn’t about progeny or pleasure. It’s about perfection.

Marriage, we believe, is one of the means in which and by which we’re perfected in our love. Such perfection, as Christians mean it, is for the sake of preparation. Our life lived with another we call beloved is meant to make us ready to live with the Father who through the Spirit calls the Son ‘Beloved.’ Marriage, then, fits us for heaven. It incorporates us into the life of the Trinity, the invisible relationship of which your relationship with your spouse is meant to be a visible sign.

The way St Paul says it, each of us is being transformed. We’re moving, Paul says, from one degree of glory to the next and from there to the next degree of glory. We’re being ‘unveiled’ of all our sin and pretenses until- so that, we can- we meet God face-to-face. And that unveiling only happens through the love that is truth that we call, perhaps somewhat euphemistically, grace.

Perfection of the other, moving the other from one degree to the next degree of glory and them moving you- that’s the purpose of marriage.

That’s why, Sam, even though a few years ago I thought you were so perfect I wanted my boys to grow up to be like you, my prayer for you on your wedding day is that someday you and your wife can say to each other ‘I’m not the person you married.’

Peace,

Jason

 

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I was a guest on Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang this week on SiriusXM. He is a sharp and funny guy and I think it turned out to be a fun interview.

Here it is:

Part Deux.

Teer, Taylor, and I road tripped to Richmond to record live and in person with Bishop Sharma Lewis, the one person after the Almighty who holds our fate in her hands.

Bishop Sharma Lewis, resident bishop of the Richmond episcopal area, became the first African-American woman to be elected bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church in 2016.A graduate of Mercer University (B.S., Biology, 1985), the University of West Georgia (M.S., Biology, 1988) and Gammon Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center (M.Div., 1999), Bishop Lewis worked as a research biologist and chemist prior to surrendering to God’s call upon her life.

Coming up, we’ve got conversations for you with Richard Rohr as well as a conversation with Robert Jenson.

And don’t forget to check out our lectionary-based offshoot of the podcast. We’re calling it Strangely Warmed.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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          Here’s my Ash Wednesday sermon. The texts were Psalm 51 and Luke 15.11-24.

Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.

Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.

After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.” 

It’s our fault.

Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS,  derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.

And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.

So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.

If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.

I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.

Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.

Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.

Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.

But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.

I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.

God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.

——————————

     Just take the parable.

The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.

 “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” 

     Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:

Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?

Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.

Alters how he sees his father.

Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.

Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.  

His father hasn’t changed.

His sin has changed how he sees his father.

Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.

The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.

You see-

     Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.

‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.

Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.

But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.

Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.

It’s worship of an Accuser.

Which can never be motived by love or joy.

     Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.

That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.

To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.

——————————

     Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.

The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.

The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.

     God is like a father whose love without condition.

Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.

God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.

Therefore-

If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.

Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.

No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.

Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.

Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.

Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.

Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.

But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.

God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.

God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.

And then we justify ourselves for having done it.

Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.

——————————

     Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.

“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.” 

Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.

I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.

I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.

After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.

And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.

As judging, damning. You.

I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.

I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.

Listen up-

You see God the way you do because of your sin.

Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.

God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.

Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.

God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.

Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.

God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.

Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.

     God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.

If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.

God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.

After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:

God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.

Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.

It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.

Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.

It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.

——————————-

     Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.

Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.

Not at all.

God never changes his mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.

If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.

It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.

It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.

You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.

You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.

Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.

Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.

God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.

That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.

Which means-

    These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.

     These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.

Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.

See-

The God you thought was an angry judge.

An auditor.

An accuser.

He’s just a Dad on a porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My publicist recently asked me to write a reply to Jeffrey Weiss’ editorial in USA Today about planning his ‘no thanks’ to cancer treatment. You can find his article here.
Prayer “Works” (But Not in the Way So Many Suppose)
Mr. Weiss,
Likely, you expect a clergyman to critique your appraisal of the Book of Job and to encourage you, as the TSA agent who recently squinted at the disparity between the pre-cancer face on my ID and the one in the flesh before her, that “prayer works.” 
“I’ll pray for you to be healed” she whispered as she circled and checked things on my boarding pass. 
With a terminal cancer of my own- mine’s in my marrow, as voracious as it is rare- I actually think you’re exactly right to point out how the Book of Job reveals the theological problem at the heart of how we so often speak of prayer. God, as the Book Job insists, is incomprehensible. As God says to Job, everything that is did not have to be, a reminder woven into the opening line of scripture “In the beginning…” We are, Job learns, contingent creatures. Our knowledge can never bridge the gap between us and our Creator. If this is true, you’re exactly right to caution against the way we speak of prayer working.
To put it more bluntly: Isn’t it ridiculous (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do? You might be surprised to hear, Mr Weiss, that I take it as self-evident that the answer to that question is ‘Yes.’
 
The God of Job isn’t a god we can manipulate by spiritually-sanctioned means to do what we want. Too often when people tell me they’ll pray for me, the implication left unsaid is that God is otherwise not already with me or at work in me and that if I’m not healed then somehow their prayers didn’t work. Such an understanding of prayer is incompatible with the God of the Book of Job, a God who is at every moment the reason there is something instead of nothing. 
Not only do I agree with you, Mr. Weiss, I think St. Paul would too. 
After stating the obvious (none of us knows how to pray), St. Paul writes to the Romans that whenever we pray, no matter what it might look like, it’s not actually we who are praying. Rather God, the Spirit, prays in us and through us. 
This is what gets missed by so many of the people who tell me they’re praying for me, but it’s something you missed too. 
Prayer isn’t something we do. It’s something God does.
Instead of a practice we perform for results we’ve predetermined, when we pray to God, we’re prayed in by God. 
God is the impetus behind our prayers as much as the object of them.  The very wants and desires we pray, runs St. Paul’s argument, are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present God. 
What’s this mean when you’re sick with stage-serious cancer and staring down the-house-always-wins odds? 
St. Thomas Aquinas doubles-down on Paul’s point when he writes: “We should not say ‘in accordance with my prayer, God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that ‘God wills it to be a fine day, in accordance with my prayer.’” 
God wills our prayers, says Aquinas, as much as God wills the fine day.
Let me put Aquinas’ point a bit more personally for the both of us: 
We should not say in accordance with the TSA agent’s prayer, God wills that I should be healed of my cancer; we should say that ‘God wills that I should be healed of my cancer, in accordance with her prayer. 
That’s no guarantee I’ll be healed, and if I’m not healed, there’s no explanation behind it of the sort Job’s churchy friends assumed. However, it is a guarantee that my desire to be healed, as well as the desire of all those praying for me, isn’t our desire alone or even originally. It’s a desire shared by- initiated by- the God who prays in us. 
You’re dead on, as contingent creatures we can never the why behind the Creator’s doings. If we could, then God would not be God. 
But to your other suggestion, that God does not care about your friends’ prayers, I disagree. Not only does God care about your friends’ prayers, their prayers derive from and originate in God. Indeed it’s not strong enough to say God cares about your friends’ prayers. Their prayers are, in fact, a sign- a sacrament, as we say in the Church- of God’s love for you. 

 

You can find the article here:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/09/29/submission-guidelines-usatoday-opinion-column-oped-howto-letters-editor/89964600/

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians defy every lie sold to us by Madison Avenue, the American healthcare system, and our President’s eerily orange visage. (Not to mention, Warren Beatty is still alive? WTF?)

Here’s the lie:

We’re not getting out of this life alive.

Not a one.

Heaven may be but Death definitely is for real.

With dismal colored ashes, tomorrow Christians confront the stark, counter-cultural truth: from אֲדָמָהadamah (‘earth’) we were made and to the adamah we shall with 100% certainty return.

Ash Wednesday is about our sin, which is but a way of saying it’s about our mortality, which means it’s about all our finitude, shortcomings and contingencies wrapped up in that time-bound word. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, the Latin word for 40th, recalling Jesus’ 40 days of testing in the wilderness before his ministry led him inexorably to the cross.

Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness echo the 40 years Israel was tested in the wilderness after their Exodus from slavery into Egypt. Whereas Jesus squares off against the devil without a hitch (‘man does not live by bread alone’ says the starving Jesus), Israel fared a bit worse (see: calf, golden).

Jesus does what Israel could not do for itself.

Jesus, it seems quite obvious to the Gospel writers and those who coordinated our lectionary, represents all the people of Israel in his own person.

And that’s no small point to note as we begin a season in which many Christians will begin their own ‘testing’ by forsaking chocolate, booze or social media. There’s nothing wrong with fasting and discipline to anticipate the Easter feast. The Church has been doing so for centuries, and, as for myself, I will be giving up both beverages of the fermented variety and furry animals on my dinner plate. And if previous Lenten fasts are any indication, I will probably be successful at this modest undertaking.

But, however good they be, modest Lenten goals that, truthfully, only intrude upon my daily life as ‘annoyances’ miss the larger point of the season:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus represents all of us in his flesh.

It’s true that in Jesus, God became one of us, was every bit as human as each one of us, experienced everything entailed by our humanity.

But it’s also true that while being 100% Human, Jesus remains, simultaneously, 100% God.

Though one of us, Jesus is not just one of us at all.

Quick history lesson:

Beginning in the 18th century, Christians began to take their cues from the Enlightenment. Now, only that which was rationally demonstrable and confirmed by our own private experience was considered ‘true.’ Rather than conforming their definitions of truth to scripture, Christians looked to scripture to confirm their a priori presumptions about what was ‘true.’ Where it did not, scripture was now considered ‘myth.’ 

So, for example, the story of Jesus’ 40 Day testing by Satan in the wilderness is no longer a ‘true’ or realistic story about what Jesus has done. Instead Christians turned to the story of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness and saw in it a parable for their own times of trial and temptation.

Rather than being a unique story about Jesus’ absolutely singular vocation, it became a generalized story about our common human experience. 

If you’re in a church that follows the lectionary, just listen to the sermon tackle Jesus’ wilderness testing. Is the sermon about how Jesus’ trials are examples of trials that come to all of us in life (cue personal- probably sports- illustration from the pastor). Or is the sermon about how in the wilderness Jesus begins his work of doing what neither Israel nor we can do for ourselves?

The Gospels tell not the story of generalized human experience found in the person of Jesus; the Gospels tell how God in Christ frees human experience from what binds it.

And because Christians ever since the Enlightenment have been so bad at remembering that perhaps this Lenten season we should forget our modest, achievable fasts and spiritual disciplines.

Instead this Lent maybe we should go balls to the wall and take on a test we know we have no hope of ever keeping.

Maybe by choosing a fast we know will end in certain failure we’ll remember the hard but good news with which this season ends:

Jesus does what we cannot do for ourselves.

For us.